The other day I finished playing Undertale. If you’re not familiar, it’s a pretty incredible PC game that’s… hard to properly explain without spoilers. The trailer calls it “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die.” It takes place in a world where, following a war between humans and monsters, the monsters were sealed underground. You play a human child who finds themselves in the lands of the monsters, trying to find their way. You wind up in a lot of fights, but you have the option to try to deal with them in a peaceful way (though it’s not always easy). It has a pretty distinctively quirky style to it. In some ways it reminds me of Homestuck, but then the creator of Undertale also composed music for Homestuck.
Undertale definitely seems to have struck a chord, and is a huge success in terms of both raw sales and inspiring tons of fanart and cosplay. I think that like Homestuck it speaks to subcultures and experiences that pop culture doesn’t really cover, but where Homestuck is a sprawling work of incredible scale (the creator once mentioned that if they do in fact put the whole thing out in book form it’ll be something like 40 volumes), Undertale is a relatively short experience, though certainly a memorable one. It has a lot to say about violence in video games (not unlike how The Stanley Parable is a commentary on choice and plot in video games), some interesting worldbuilding, and lots of charming and memorable characters.
Very much like how Madoka Magica helped crystallize what I wanted to do in a dark magical girl RPG and paved the way for Magical Burst, Undertale helped bring a vague soup of ideas together into the idea for a game that I’m tentatively calling “Pix.” (Or that may just be the name of the setting if I can come up with a better name for the game itself.) I’ve been wanting to do something with the inspirations that titles like Homestuck, Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Cucumber Quest have been putting in front of me for several years now, and Undertale was what led me to the spark of an idea. Just as Magical Burst isn’t quite a Madoka RPG, Pix isn’t going to be an Undertale RPG per se, but its own animal, albeit with a healthy dose of Undertale inspiration.
Pix is the name of the land where the game takes place. The inhabitants are a little vague on the details, but its origins involve a tormented child finding escape in a video game, until her tormentor comes into the game world, and then some kind of cataclysm happens. Pix is a fragile mishmash of different kinds of reality, tethered to the human world by the Rainbow Spire. It has definite aspects of video games in its basic reality, but it’s rather like what happens with the NPCs when the player’s character isn’t around. The inhabitants of Pix try to live peaceful lives and help each other, partly because they know they need to in order to survive. They do receive information and artifacts from the human world, so they tend to get a bit fixated on pop culture. The aim of the game is to foster weird but gentle stories with a touch of pathos and (nonviolent) adventure.
So far the game is looking to be sort of a hybrid of Golden Sky Stories and Apocalypse World, with the twist that PCs are made by combining a Type (the general sort of creature they are) and a Job (what they do). This is kind of like what I was thinking of doing for the possible Adventure Time-inspired GSS setting, though I’m planning to change the basic structure a little more, and have AW-style stuff for naming and describing characters. I haven’t gotten too far into writing up the Jobs and Types (because I need to nail down more of what mechanics there are for Powers and Weaknesses to play with), but I do like how (for example) the Nerd job (which can variously be a super-scientist or just a huge dork) has a “Shipping” power that helps other people become friends.
Although I’ve now created two setting hacks for GSS, I haven’t done all that much tinkering with the actual engine before. Pix thusfar sticks fairly closely to GSS on several points, but parts ways in many others, and I’m trying to simplify certain parts (like connections). On the other hand I want to try for something kind of like Undertale’s Act commands, giving some degree of mechanical support for coaxing and befriending creatures you encounter.
I don’t start a project with a big manifesto in mind, but while Pix started with a burst of random inspiration, I think I want it first and foremost to be a heartwarming game that says “you belong.” The PCs are going to mostly be good-natured weirdos who are kind of broken inside, but need each other. Even when they’re lizards or sentient patches of fire, they’re people with their own feelings, hopes, and value.
Anyway, I have way, way more than enough stuff to take care of just now, but I wanted to do a bit of a brain-dump on this, since I’m finding it so exciting.
I decided to try taking a more incremental approach to what will hopefully be the last leg of the development of Magical Burst, starting with an “alpha” that will have the bare minimum necessary to play and then filling out more and more elements of the game as I go along, hopefully better informed about how the game really works at the table while I do so. For previous drafts I put in a whole lot of work on things that ultimately wound up being wasted as the game changed, so this time around I’m going to get it out there before I get too far, and not worry too much about stuff like formatting.
The other day I realized that I’ve been trying to make Raspberry Heaven off and on since 2007. Magical Burst has been a greater source of frustration, but Raspberry Heaven has regularly left me with no idea how to proceed, to the point where I’ve basically made about four or five games under that name. That journey is finally complete with the release of a new version that comes as a set of 6″x6″ cards, available through DriveThruRPG (and an 8.5″x11″ PDF version too).
I was into Azumanga Daioh when it first came out as an anime in 2002. The manga was one of the very first I read in Japanese, with a Japanese-English dictionary and a kanji dictionary on hand, and I picked up a lot of vocabulary from it. At a time when anime, at least the anime that American fans were watching, was full of the most fantastical sci-fi and fantasy elements, Azumanga Daioh was a refreshingly everyday kind of funny. It seems to have started something of a trend, and I later got into the genre in a big way, with titles like Hidamari Sketch, A Channel, Uraban!, Suzunari, Sketchbook, Ichiroh, S.S. Astro, Yuru Yuri, etc. (Also the creator went on to do the really excellent Yotsuba&!, which in turn inspired Ben Lehman’s game Clover.)
A lot of people have written a lot of words about what went down with DriveThruRPG recently. (Of particular note are Jessica Price and Tracy Hurley‘s pieces about it.) To recap, the publisher of the Black Tokyo line of hentai d20 supplements released a scenario called “Tournament of Rapists,” and many people quite naturally objected to it being on a site for elfgames. It didn’t help that it got released without the “Adult” tag, and with the Pathfinder tag, putting it in front of a lot of people who probably would’ve missed it otherwise. OBS took their time to work out what they wanted to do about the situation, but they finally did bring out a full blog post, outlining a new “Offensive Content Policy” that they would be implementing. Where companies like Amazon and Apple can afford to employ a staff of people who approve product submissions to their online storefronts, DTRPG is too small for that, so up until now they’ve had an approval process for publishers, but not for products per se. Their plan is to implement a reporting feature, and reports will in turn go to the senior staff for review. If they decide a product is a problem they’ll suspend it and work with the publisher, but otherwise it will not be affected by reports. Spamming a title you don’t like won’t do anything other than annoy the DTRPG guys, and won’t get anything automatically removed.
Over the past few months I’ve been working as a content moderator at a big tech company. My manager takes free speech very seriously, and we often have to stop and discuss things to figure out where the dividing line is based on our moderation policies, which themselves have gotten some revisions even in the short time I’ve been there. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m well aware that figuring this stuff out isn’t easy, and sometimes it can be agonizingly hard. On a purely legal level, OBS can allow or disallow whatever products they want, but obviously we want to talk about what’s morally right for them to do. In my view a company in their position–where they own a huge portion of a market–has an obligation to find the happy middle between permissiveness and responsibility. There’s a point at which even people who are relatively pro-censorship would find pulling products unfair and immoral (hypothetically, imagine them disallowing a product that satirized DTRPG), but also a point where something pushes boundaries to the point where we can legitimately make a case that it’s harmful and something they don’t want to be associated with.
I have a bunch of games cooking for my Patreon, enough so that some other things are tending to fall by the wayside. One that’s kind of fallen through the cracks is AnimeCon, a freeform game about going to an anime convention. I have a first draft completely done, but I have no idea when I’ll be able to actually give it the playtesting it needs, so I figured I’d go ahead and post it up for free.
In terms of game design, the major inspirations for AnimeCon are Remodel and Amidst Endless Quiet, and the rules it has exist to give a basic structure to what is otherwise freeform role-playing. It has a set of 6 role cards to quickly establish a cast of characters, and you essentially play through a series of scene prompts. It plays with some of the ideas I’ve been working on for Beyond Otaku Dreams, finding the humanity of anime fans at a con, but without the fantastic conceits. It would certainly be possible to rewrite it to deal with other fandoms, but as written it requires a reasonable knowledge of anime fandom.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how RPGs handle combat. It’s one of those things that people are weird about. People who enjoy entertainment without fighting on a regular basis and whose RPG campaigns include all sorts of other things nonetheless often seem to have trouble understanding how an RPG without combat would even be possible.
The traditional approach essentially makes combat into a highly detailed mini-game, often the single most complex portion of the game’s rules. As usual I’ll say that the traditional approach isn’t bad, just something that we need to examine critically, as it’s one valid approach among many. There’s a lot of variations of this general theme, but broadly speaking the major drawbacks of the traditional approach are:
It leans towards fights to the death being the default. Killing or incapacitating foes is often the most efficient way to do things in RPG combat systems. Some go as far as to penalize attempts to deal with foes in combat without killing them, and a whole lot of games find ways to gloss over all that killing as well. Character tend to cut off more story possibilities than they create. I won’t advocate for every character to be an immortal (though I think that’s a valid approach for some games), but fights to the death shouldn’t be the default quite so often.
It tends to make fights highly time-consuming. Some games do better than others, but by and large RPGs make fights just take a lot of time at the table. More than once I’ve had to cut a game session short because although we had some more time to hang out, we didn’t have an hour and a half to play out a battle.
It can detract from other parts of the game. There are a lot of things I like about D&D4e, and a lot of things I think RPG designers in general could stand to learn from. But there’s still the fact that it made it really easy to get sucked into the combat mini-game and not really role-play unless you went way out of your way to put effort into it. 4e has one of the more sophisticated and fun combat mini-games in an RPG, but it’s nowhere near alone in the tendency to take away from other parts of the game.
Rules and character options tend to be excessively concentrated around it. These two things dovetail into one another, because if combat is the most involved thing in the game, it’s also the thing that game designers can hang the most character traits off of. Since combat is so often life-and-death for the PCs, players naturally tend to make it a high priority since they want their characters to not die.
All of these are tendencies rather than ironclad consequences of course, and things that RPGs can do better at even without taking a radically different approach. D&D4e for example made the simple change of letting you incapacitate an enemy simply by declaring that you’re doing so when landing a final blow on an enemy, which makes it vastly easier to, say, spare a foe’s life to interrogate them later. Strike! removes so much of the busywork from combat that it takes 4e-style tactical combat and cuts them down to 20 or 30 minutes.
I’ve been playing JRPGs pretty intently of late (notably Final Fantasy X and Tales of Hearts R). The combat systems in those kinds of games are descended from D&D (with games like Wizardry! and Dragon Quest as intermediary steps), where you’re mainly using your attacks to wear down the enemy’s HP before they can do the same to you. However, the way the games use battles as part of the overall story can vary enormously. Usually when you deplete a monster’s HP it’s implied that you kill it, but named characters are a very different matter. Unless you’re close to the end of the game, in a JRPG a battle against a named human character will typically result in them being too beat down to fight, but almost never means they’re dead.
In general I find it interesting how JRPGs will establish a combat system and then use it in a variety of different ways to tell a story. Final Fantasy games and Tales games have some major differences in their styles of combat systems (Tales is real-time and makes considerable use of positioning), but they’re similar for how the game designers will determine the narrative purpose of a fight, using the design parameters of the enemy and the story elements before and after (and sometimes during) the battle to make it fit into the flow of the game’s story to a certain effect. They sometimes do this badly, slotting a contrived hoop to jump through where there at first seems to be a gameplay challenge. For the first few hours of Final Fantasy X there are almost no battles that work as normal battles for example; the game is constantly interrupting them to toss story stuff at you.
For a while I’ve been thinking about how to make an RPG in the style of JRPGs, and those games’ relationship with combat is one of the things that potentially makes it a tricky proposition. In the 90s there was a fan-made Final Fantasy RPG project that tried to duplicate the mechanics of the video games, and the result was something that I suspect only would’ve felt like a Final Fantasy game story-wise with a lot of extra work on the GM’s part. Tabletop RPGs don’t have or need “cutscenes,” and JRPG mechanics don’t have any way to address how to handle those kinds of events, because they come down to what the writers can write and the programmers can portray.
There have been some tabletop RPGs that take an unconventional approach to combat. Here are a few:
Combat in Apocalypse World has dramatically less of a distinction from other parts of gameplay. Certain aspects of the game are much more likely to come into play during a fight, but the game never stops being fundamentally about “the conversation.”
Taking it even further, games like Fiasco have very few rules at all, including where combat is concerned. Apart from the epilogue, the game doesn’t impose any consequences per se, and this can be very freeing. A player can have their own character die in the first scene, and then appear only in flashbacks for the rest of the game, something that would be next to impossible to arrange in a typical RPG.
Many games make no particular distinction between combat and other types of conflict. Polaris for example follows the same conflict resolution process regardless of the nature of the conflict. Dogs in the Vineyard has different levels of escalation that distinguish an argument from a gunfight, but the fundamental rules of conflicts stay the same.
In Golden Sky Stories, the subject matter and overall approach are non-violent. There might be an occasional scuffle (though I’ve never seen one when running the game), but GSS shows us that an RPG just plain doesn’t have to involve violence.
In Magical Fury, I cut combat down to a few quick die rolls and an evaluation that tells you what the consequences of the battle are. Although battles are a regular feature of gameplay, they take up very little time, and primarily serve as a means to determine what consequences arise from a fight.
World Wide Wrestling is based on professional wrestling, and that led it to a pretty unique take on how fights work out. The GM “books” each match, and decides on its outcome ahead of time. It’s possible for wrestlers to swerve a match to an unplanned outcome, but the real purpose of the matches is their place in the story and determining whether they make the crowd go wild or just fall flat.
Although I like all of these, I think for me the most interesting at the moment are the games that prioritize the consequences of a conflict. An awful lot of the various narrative forms of entertainment we experience deal with combat in those terms, I think because otherwise there’s usually not much point in including it. Even an impressively choreographed fight can be boring if it doesn’t lead much of anywhere, as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace demonstrated several times over, whereas a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road can get away with being one long, violent chase scene because the movie skillfully gives you reasons to care about how things turn out.
Anyway, all of this leads me to yet another RPG project. I started on a mini-RPG, called Zero Breakers: Battle School Chronicle. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make an RPG in the style of shounen fighting manga (stuff like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, etc.) for ages, and I was thinking about taking a stab at it as a Patreon mini-RPG. That in turn met with an idea for a game about students at a school for people with special powers, where school life is bent around epic battles that keep the students busy, inspired by Mikagura Gakuen Kumikyoku. Zero Breakers takes place at Narukami Gakuen, a school for Breakers. “Breakers” are people with a limited ability to bend reality around them, fueled by their passions and interests, and the school is one of several institutions that basically exist to keep them busy so they don’t destroy the world. Lots of fighting, in a setting where characters can have zany powers and fight with paintbrushes or staplers or whatever, and not the kind of thing where characters die. Even if you beat someone, chances are you’ll still see them in class the next day.
Although the outward trappings vary greatly, shounen fighting manga has a very distinct style, and one that I think runs against the grain of how tabletop RPGs typically work. My original “Zero Breakers” game (I decided to reuse the title) was going to be diceless, and battles would’ve essentially involved jockeying to bring your Power Level up higher than that of your opponent. It wound up being one of those drafts with some stuff that sounded neat on paper, but never gelled into a game. A friend of mine meanwhile literally went through about 40 different iterations of his own attempt at the genre without really getting anywhere. To me shounen manga battles have an air of inevitability about them. That was why I initially went for a diceless approach. A shounen RPG could have some kind of randomness, but I feel that the typical RPG approach with to-hit rolls is just flat-out wrong for the genre. There’s just no element of dumb luck in them, except maybe when “luck” is a very deliberate plot element.
But making a competitive, non-random combat system that’s still fun to engage and produces interesting stories may be a bit beyond me. Like a lot of the design problems I’ve run into, the solution seems to be to approach it from a totally different angle, creating rules that are situated orthogonally to the usual things RPG mechanics concern themselves with.
I’m still trying to work out how exactly I’m going to put Zero Breakers together, but my initial thinking is that it will be centered around playing cards to narrate stuff rather than playing with mechanics to see if you win. I’m debating taking an approach similar to World Wide Wrestling, where the default outcome is pre-determined, and you’re playing out the fight more to see its broader effects. (But I’m not sure how exactly that decision should be made if I do go that route.) In any case I’m thinking players will accumulate cards over the course of the setup by doing things that fit their character, and then do different things with the cards to trigger “moves” that let them narrate different kinds of things that show the overall thrust of the battle. Players on the sidelines have the option to do “side narration” (the Speedwagon role, to anyone who knows JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), playing a card now and then to enhance one side’s plays while narrating details about the fight in-character.
Anyway, that’s where I am with things right now. I’m a bit into the first draft of Zero Breakers, and generally liking how the whole thing is coming along.
A while back I took advantage of an Amazon Lightning Deal to get a PlayStation TV, which in case you don’t know is basically the guts of a Vita in a little box that plugs into your TV. The selection of games for it is relatively limited, but includes a fair amount of JRPGs, including Persona 3 Portable (by way of getting the PSP version through PSN) and Persona 4 Golden. They wound up being among the more compelling video game experiences I’ve had ever, and I can definitely see why a Persona-inspired tabletop RPG is kind of a holy grail for a lot of gamers.